Nathan MacKinnon said he doesn’t think anyone wants to face the Colorado Avalanche in Round 1. After a rough start to the season, the past two months changed everything.
Once the dust settled on a crazy trade season — highlighted by the arms race in the Eastern Conference — no clear-cut favorite emerged from the Western Conference.
The West is wide open in many ways. The Vegas Golden Knights may be first in the conference, but are they that much better than the Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild or Edmonton Oilers? Probably not. But maybe we’re underselling the true favorite out of the West — the Colorado Avalanche.
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Over the last two months, the Avs have been the NHL’s best team, sporting a 17-5-3 record. But that’s all been somewhat overshadowed by the questions surrounding the teams’ depth, given how injuries have piled up this year for the Avalanche.
Gabriel Landeskog hasn’t played all year, and there’s no timetable for his return. Erik Johnson is sidelined indefinitely with a broken ankle. Artturi Lehkonen will be out for at least four to six weeks after breaking his finger on Monday.
And with Colorado shying away from making a big splash at the deadline — only adding Lars Eller to their middle-six — perhaps many have written the Avalanche off too easily. They shouldn’t.
“I’m not sure I’d want to see the defending champs in the first round after a great season,” said Nathan MacKinnon.
Especially with the talent they have.
MacKinnon, whose 1.52 points per game this season trails only Connor McDavid for the league lead, has been playing at an MVP candidate caliber over the last two months. He’s leading the league in 5-on-5 points (24), shots (81) and shot attempts (144) through that span, according to naturalstattrick.com.
“I don’t think anyone is unaware of his speed and power — everyone is pretty aware of him and (Connor McDavid) setting the standard from that standpoint in the league,” said one of MacKinnon’s opponents on Wednesday, Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares.
Then there’s Cale Makar, one of the best defensemen in the world. You may not hear his name in the Norris conversation much this year, but his 1.07 points per game rank second among NHL defensemen this season.
“His ability to shift laterally, especially on the blueline — you always have to be aware of that because there’s probably nobody better in the league as a defenseman (at it) besides Erik Karlsson,” Tavares said.
And, of course, Mikko Rantanen, who’s recorded 45 goals (a career-high) and 82 points while being a stable force all year long, especially when MacKinnon and Makar were injured.
“He’s so big and strong — he’s just a horse,” MacKinnon said. “He’s a massive guy, strong, and obviously he’s got a lot of finesse as well. Some big guys don’t have that touch, but he definitely has it.”
Those three players are game-breakers. They’re the type that can fill some of the void left by the injuries.
“We’re kind of just used to it now,” Rantanen said. “The whole year, we’ve been missing guys, and now again, we’re missing a full line basically (with) five guys out. It’s not easy, but I think we’ve got that mentality — next man up — guys are playing well when they’re promoted.”
Perhaps the Avs forward core deserves more credit.
Valeri Nichushkin has built off of his career year last season when he broke out for a career-high 52 points. The 6-foot-4 right winger has 36 points in 38 games this year.
“He’s a force for us on the forecheck,” Makar said. “He’s starting to produce now which is awesome, but I mean, looking back at last year’s playoffs, what made him good was that he was a threat in all areas of the ice. I feel like he can intimidate D-men as well. He was such a force on the forecheck that usually created chances for us to work in the offensive zone.”
And then there’s J.T. Compher and Evan Rodrigues, two players who have put up strong underlying defensive numbers in middle-six roles over the last few years that have fared well in top-six roles for Colorado.
Recording a career-high 43 points in 67 games, Compher has been an essential piece to the Avs in all situations — even strength, penalty kill, and power play — all year long. Rodrigues, on the other hand, has 32 points in 56 games and has fared well on MacKinnon’s wing throughout the year. Those two may not be sexy names, but they’ve gotten the job done recently.
And let’s not forget about their blueline.
Along with Makar, Colorado has Bo Byram, Samuel Girard and Devon Toews — the latter three play on the team’s second power-play unit.
“We’ve got quite a few mobile guys on the back end, and we’re encouraged to be up in the rush to help out,” Byram said.
Over the last month, Colorado has allowed the fifth-fewest shots against per game (26.9) in the NHL. The overall commitment to team defense has been apparent as of late, with Wednesday’s game against Toronto being a shining example — Colorado suppressed the high-octane offensive Maple Leafs to 18 shots on goal. It was a playoff-style game, with the Avs matching up well against a team that is widely regarded as being better on paper.
Of course, this team could still use a player like Nazem Kadri down the middle. And again, the losses of Landeskog and Lehtonen sting — but they’re not necessarily catastrophic.
With the Avalanche playing the way they’re playing, and with a favorable schedule in the home stretch of the regular season, Colorado can still secure home-ice advantage for the playoffs.
And if that comes to be, MacKinnon is right — nobody will want to face the defending champs in Round 1.
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